US Supreme Court rules against Biden administration student debt relief plan

Nebraska was among six states that challenged

By: - June 30, 2023 10:29 am

University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

HEROES Act central to ruling

Roberts disagreed with the Biden administration’s argument that the federal HEROES Act allowed the secretary of education “to cancel $430 billion of student loan principal.” The HEROES Act, first enacted 20 years ago, was used by the Trump administration to suspend repayments on federal student loans at the onset of the pandemic.

During oral arguments in March, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar — representing the Biden administration — argued that under the HEROES Act, the secretary of education can “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision” to help borrowers in a national emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Roberts said the administration went too far. “We hold today that the Act allows the Secretary to ‘waive or modify’ existing statutory or regulatory provisions applicable to financial assistance programs under the Education Act, not to rewrite that statute from the ground up,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts invoked the “major questions doctrine,” which means that if Congress wants to give an agency, such as the Department of Education, the power to make a decision of “economic and political significance,” it has to explicitly say so.

Roberts wrote that “the question here is not whether something should be done; it is who has the authority to do it.”

Congress reacts

Congress is unlikely to act on debt relief anytime soon, with control split between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a statement that he was disappointed in the decision.

“This disappointing and cruel ruling shows the callousness of the MAGA Republican-controlled Supreme Court,” he said. “The hypocrisy is clear: as justices accept lavish, six-figure gifts, they don’t dare to help Americans saddled with student loan debt, instead siding with the powerful, big-monied interests.”

He called on the Biden administration to “do everything in its power to deliver for millions of working- and middle-class Americans struggling with student loan debt.”

Congressional Republicans hailed the decision.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement that the court’s decision “deals a heavy blow to Democrats’ distorted and outsized view of executive power.”

“The President of the United States cannot hijack twenty-year-old emergency powers to pad the pockets of his high-earning base and make suckers out of working families who choose not to take on student debt,” McConnell said.

GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who introduced the Congressional Review Act resolution to overturn the Biden administration’s debt relief policy, said in a statement that the court came to the right conclusion.

“This is an obvious but welcomed ruling,” he said. “President Biden’s student loan scheme does not ‘forgive’ debt, but unfairly transfers the burden from those who willingly took out loans onto those who chose not to attend college or already fulfilled their commitment to pay off their loans.”


But Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia said in a statement that the news was devastating.

Nebraska Democrats respond

State Democratic Party Chair, Jane Kleeb: “The Supreme Court is living out the extreme-right agenda major donors have paid for over the last few decades,” Kleeb said. “Decisions are being made by the highest court in our nation that enforce discrimination and increase the barriers to a level playing field.”

State Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha: “Today’s decision is a disappointing one for the students at the five colleges and universities in my district and thousands of my constituents who are struggling with student loan debt. Nebraska should be making it easier, not harder, for everyone to afford a college education.”

“The Supreme Court’s decision to usurp the President’s executive authority to provide meaningful debt relief isn’t just bad for the everyday, hardworking Georgians who are being held back financially by crippling debt, but it’s also terrible for our entire economy and sets a dangerous precedent that binds the hands of the elected executive from taking action that reflects the will of the people,” he said.

The chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Foxx of North Carolina, said in a statement that she was pleased the Supreme Court had held the Biden administration accountable.

“Mr. President, good riddance to your illegal, economically disastrous taxpayer-funded bailout for the wealthy,” she said. ““This ‘one-time’ ‘cancellation’ of student loan debt was subterfuge for the radical Left’s ultimate goal of taxpayer-funded ‘free’ college for all.”

Foxx has held several hearings about the Biden administration’s student debt relief program, and has spoken against the policy since it was announced.

The top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, Bobby Scott of Virginia, said in a statement that millions of borrowers will be denied “the relief they need to make ends meet.”

“A college education should not depend on how much money a student’s parents make,” he said.

Scott said moving forward, Democrats should work to advance legislation to increase the funding of Pell Grants, lower interest rates for student loans and “make other critical reforms to make our student loan system work for students.”

Rep. Frederica S. Wilson of Florida, who is the top Democrat on the Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee, said in a statement that the decision will perpetuate inequality and continue to harm vulnerable borrowers of color.

“It is no secret that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color, exacerbating inequalities,” she said. “Student debt cancellation would have been a bold step toward narrowing the racial wealth gap.”

Youth vote

The decision is likely to become an issue in the race for the presidency. Youth organizations that back student debt relief said they will use the ruling to rally support.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of NextGen America, one of the largest youth voting organizations, said in a statement that “young voters will remember this come 2024.”

She added that, “heading into 2024, we will not forget the people who fight for us everyday and the people who would rather protect the pockets of shady billionaires.”

Another Gen Z-led organization, Voters of Tomorrow, echoed similar sentiments.

“We hope that the Biden Administration is able to negotiate a deal through Congress or take executive action to relieve student debt for all Americans,” the group said in a statement. “While we know it will be difficult with far-right politicians who have championed the removal of the plan, it is what is needed to remove the burden from millions of Americans.”

Kendra Cotton, the CEO of New Georgia Project, a voter mobilization group, said in a statement that in “the wake of this decision, New Georgia Project will double down on our efforts to connect the issues Black, brown, and young Georgians need to secure their economic futures — an increased minimum wage, better access to healthcare, and more affordable housing — to the importance of voting.”


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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.